Democracy – review

Crucible, Sheffield

The West German chancellor Willy Brandt received the Nobel peace prize for his part in ending the cold war, and this year gains what is perhaps the ultimate modern accolade: an airport named in his honour. He is also the subject of this 2003 drama, revived as part of the Crucible's Michael Frayn season, that, while acknowledging Brandt's profound impact on postwar German politics, paints an altogether less flattering portrait.

We want our dramatic heroes to be flawed; and Frayn's Brandt is riven with them. He is a popular figure with a common touch whose charisma concealed a strange lack of personal conviction; a political optimist subject to excoriating bouts of depression; and, above all, a man who failed to chose his friends very wisely – Brandt's chancellorship came to an ignominious end in 1974 when one of his closest aides was unmasked as a communist spy.

The question is why the East German intelligence service should have sought to undermine a man whose policies of detente worked largely in its favour? The answer is that it didn't. The aim was to ensure that Brandt remained in office; and though the Stasi plan backfired, it enables Frayn to tease out the irony of a vulnerable figure who found more succour in his enemies than his allies.

Great dramas reinvent their context. Back in 2003, the play was read as an allegory of New Labour, in which Brandt set the template for ditching socialism in favour of "drinking champagne from actress's slippers". Nearly 10 years later, Paul Miller's revival appears to be a parable about the insidious compromise of coalition government, as members of Brandt's minority administration palpably seethe at the indignity of being tied to the Liberals: "That leaking tub of a party sinking towards oblivion."

Though Patrick Drury's Brandt is imperiously rendered, the characterisation feels slightly suffocated by the obligation to act according to historical record. Frayn has more fun inventing a persona for Gunther Guillaume, the Stasi mole described as "looking like the owner of a pornographic bookshop". Aidan McArdle presents the character as a beetling, haphazard Sancho Panza to Drury's Don Quixote; and Richard Hope is especially fine as a chief of staff whose lackadaisical vetting procedures do not warrant much scrutiny. Stripping away the old saws about remorseless efficiency, Frayn indicates that the German political machine is as prone to cockup and compromise as anyone else's – which is probably the price of democracy.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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